Galveston D.A. braces for critics over Baby Grace case—-Family members
support the decision not to seek the death penalty
The Galveston County district attorney is hunkering down for a firestorm
of criticism following his decision Wednesday to seek life imprisonment
rather than the death penalty for the mother and stepfather of Riley Ann
Sawyers, known as Baby Grace until her battered body was identified.
Arguing that his decision was dictated by the law, District Attorney Kurt
Sistrunk said he will not seek the death penalty for Royce Clyde Zeigler
II, 25, and his wife, Kimberly Dawn Trenor, 19, both of Spring.
"I expect a backlash, but we're not in this office to make decisions on
where the popular emotional points may be directed," he said in an
interview following a pre-trial hearing for Zeigler before District Judge
Garner set a Nov. 3 trial date for Zeigler and Trenor, accused of killing
2-year-old Riley on July 25 in a brutal disciplinary session, storing her
body for up to 2 months in a plastic container and finally tossing the box
into West Galveston Bay.
Sistrunk said a 2007 ruling by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals made it
impossible for him to obtain a death penalty verdict that would withstand
Riley's family supports Sistrunk's decision, said family attorney Laura
DePledge. Riley's grandmother, Sheryl Sawyers of Mentor, Ohio, and the
girl's father, Robert Sawyers of Painsville, Ohio, met with Sistrunk in
December and urged him to seek a life sentence rather than the death
penalty, DePledge said.
"They support the decision of the Galveston County prosecutor," DePledge
said. "They would much prefer (Zeigler and Trenor) spend the rest of their
lives looking over their shoulder wondering who is going to attack them."
Sheryl Sawyers is unable to sleep because she hears Riley screaming for
help, DePledge said. "I want them to try to sleep at night and hear her
like I do," she quoted Sawyers as saying.
Law professors said Sistrunk took a courageous stand in resisting the
popular outcry for the death sentence.
"Thank God there is a prosecutor in this state that is exercising
discretion," said former state District Judge Lupe Salinas, now law
professor at the Thurgood Marshal School of Law at Texas Southern
Salinas said the political pressure to seek the death penalty outweighs
the law in too many instances.
"Too many look at the polls, look at what the possibilities might be of an
election and that's where our system suffers," he said.
Geoffrey Corn, law professor at South Texas College of Law, said, "I think
it does show courage. It shows a prosecutor that's committed to fulfilling
his ethical obligations."
Sistrunk, who is serving his 2nd term, said his decision could be a
political liability when he is up for re-election in 2010.
Since Sistrunk took office in January 2003, records show 4 guilty verdicts
in capital murder cases and 1 not guilty. 3 guilty verdicts were by plea.
He said he made his decision after seeking advice from other prosecutors
at a capital murder seminar 2 weeks ago.
Sistrunk said he was abiding by a 2007 Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
ruling that would make it nearly impossible to obtain a death penalty
decision that would withstand appeal.
The ruling concerned a special question that a jury must answer to arrive
at a death penalty decision: Will the accused be a future danger to
society? The jury must answer yes for the death penalty.
The appeals court ruled in the case of Kenisha Eronda Berry of Beaumont,
convicted in the death of her infant son, Malachi, that the slaying of her
child was insufficient to prove that she would be a future danger to
society, Sistrunk said.
Sistrunk said that meant a jury would therefore be unable to find that
Zeigler or Trenor would be a future danger to society.
Corn said he was surprised at Sistrunk's decision. "I'm not so sure you
take it off the table at this point in the process," he said.
Corn said that, although he didn't have all the facts that Sistrunk had,
his reading of the Berry case showed that the court was concerned the
state relied on the evil nature of the crime to support future
dangerousness. The court found that the evilness of the crime was not
He said it might have been possible for Sistrunk to show future
endangerment by the nature of the crime rather than whether it was evil.
Sistrunk did not respond to an e-mail asking if the appeals court decision
would apply to Travis Mullis, 21, of Alvin, awaiting trial on an
accusation that he stomped his 3-month-old son to death to make him stop
Zeigler and Trenor are charged with capital murder and evidence tampering
in connection with the Riley's death. Judge Garner is expected to set
Trenor's trial date at a hearing Thursday.
Riley's remains were found in a plastic container by a fisherman in West
Galveston Bay on Oct. 29.
Zeigler and Trenor are accused of killing Riley on July 25 during a
disciplinary session at their Spring home. Trenor has said the two beat
Riley with belts, held her head under bath water, and that Zeigler hurled
her onto a tile floor and her face was pushed into a pillow and a couch.
The girl's body, Trenor said, was kept in a plastic box in a storage shed
for up to 2 months before the box was tossed into the bay.
Both remain in the Galveston County Jail in lieu of $750,000 bond each.
(source: Houston Chronicle)